Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Three Hateful Figures" (on the MET production of Bizet's Carmen)

three hateful figures
by Douglas Messerli

Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac (libretto, based on the novella by Prosper Mérimée), Georges Bizet (composer), Richard Eyre (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Carmen / 2019 (The Metropolitan Opera HD live-broadcast)

Over numerous years I have come to know almost every aria in and the plot of Carmen, but oddly enough I had never seen a performance of the popular opera. So, the announcement by the Metropolitan Opera that this year they were including their tragic tale of the gypsy Carmen and the soldier Don José in their live HD broadcast, led Howard and me to buy tickets. And this production was such an excellent one, that feel that perhaps I need not see another.
       I say that, knowing that I might truly enjoy hearing Georges Bizet’s most memorable score, and would truly enjoy singers performing it of the quality of this production, but must also proclaim that the central characters are all rather repulsive.

      Yes, Carmen (Clémentine Margaine in this production) is a truly independent spirit, who will have love only on her terms, as she expresses it in her Act 1 "Habanera.” If in a society where men generally made the decision about whom they loved, the cigarette girl, given her beauty, is able to make her own choices of lovers and to declare that her shifting interests may result in heart-break or even death for her former lovers. In short, she recognizes herself as a dangerous siren who spends a great deal of energy in playing a kind of dominating whore, spinning webs around men only to leave them entrapped when she moves on to her next lover. And all those around her, apparently, know her pattern and steer clear of her sexual enticements. Only outsiders such as Don José (Roberto Alagna) and the toreador, Escamillo (Alexander Vinogradov) might allow themselves to fall for her charms.

     It is precisely her independence and willfulness that attracts men to her. In a society of feminine passivity, Carmen stands out in her alluring masculine-like stance. One might even observe that she symbolically stands for soldiers and toreadors alike—both groups of which, because of their historical association with their own sex and their colorful costumes, have long been the focus of gay intrigue—as a kind of acceptable drag incarnation of their male colleagues. *
     But Carmen also is a betrayer, a violent fighter, a smuggler, and thief, who entices the flustered Don José not only to leave the saintly—and again quite passive female, who visits her would-be lover only upon instructions and the pleas of Don José’s mother, Micaéla (Aleksandra Kurzak, in real life the wife of Alagna) free her from arrestment, for which he is imprisoned for months, to leave his employment as a soldier, and to join the gypsy smugglers. True, he is intoxicated by his love for Carmen, but we also see through these acts just how weak he is as a man. In a sense, Don José is as passive as Carmen is independent. And he too has now betrayed all those to whom he was formerly committed. Is it any wonder that Carmen can no longer admire or love him? By giving in to all of her demands he has simply shown himself as a male weakling (and we must remember that Mérimée's tale is very much about gender stereotypes, even if they are often overturned).

     Carmen has now fallen in love with an equally odious being, the self-enchanted, braggadocios bull-fighter from Seville, Escamillo. The children (which are absolutely wonderful in this production, which provided them even with a backstage interview in the intermission) and the locals may all celebrate his achievements, but there is something amiss with this “hero.” Escamillo may appear brave to attempt to visit the smuggler’s mountain hangout to seek out Carmen, but he is quickly bested in a fight with Carmen’s cohorts and backs off.
     Even if Carmen is currently smitten by him, we recognize that she will eventually perceive his true cowardice and will leave him as well. Fortunately, we never discover what might have occurred in their relationship, but it might be interesting as a separate work to imagine what their relationship would have been and how it might have ended—surely, once more, in violence.
       The true hero of this opera is Micaéla, who truly enters the lion’s den of the smuggler’s hideout, trembling with fear, not only for her encounter with the suspicious males, but for having to encounter her nemesis Carmen. Yet only she is able, temporarily at least, of weaning Don José away from this world so that he might attend to his mother’s impending death.

     Her victory, however, is a short one. He returns to Carmen, this time taking on the most horrific role he might ever embody of a murderer, waiting to be arrested and hung.
       No matter how you might view conventional behavior, you have to be shocked by the trio of horrific beings at the center of this story. Opera is filled with hateful figures, criminals, rapists, and many, many murderers. But these three rather shady figures starring in a single work may be a kind of record.
    They all may be proclaiming love, but the results of that love make you shudder. Even Don Giovanni, the lecherous count also roaming the Seville streets, seems almost saintly in comparison.
As the gentle and mostly unjudgmental Howard said, upon leaving the theater, “these are not such nice people.”
     I was enchanted by the performances and music, even if it didn’t make me want to abandon my life and run into the mountains.

*It’s fascinating, simply as a coincidental piece of gay gossip, that Marcel Proust, after Bizet’s death, befriended the composer’s wife and son, upon who based two of the central figures in his masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. The author of the original Carmen, Prosper Mérimée, although having occasional affairs and long correspondences with women, never married and lived most of his life with his mother. He did have a one-night stand, apparently, with George Sand (not impressed with his sexual prowess), who might almost be portrayed as a kind of Carmen, a strong-willed, talented seductress of many powerful men.

Los Angeles, February 6, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2019).

Monday, February 4, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Dolly Will Never Go Away" (on Betty Buckley's performance of Hello, Dolly!)

dolly will never go away
by Douglas Messerli

Michael Stewart (book), Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) Hello, Dolly! / in a performance directed by Jerry Zaks / touring company with Betty Buckley in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre / the performance I saw was with Howard Fox on February 3, 2019

As a 49th anniversary gift to Howard I bought tickets to the traveling company of Hello, Dolly! with Betty Buckley in starring role at the grand Hollywood Boulevard theater in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Pantages.
      That theater, to which tourists from around the area and the world flock, kept notifying me that mobile phone entrance was the only possible way to enter the gates of this paradise. We are stubborn troglodytes who refuse to have cellphones (and strangely enough, my young assistant, Pablo, is also cellphone-less), so I had to call the monstrous Ticketmaster several times to make certain that our tickets might be held a will-call, and to reassure me of the fact that we would actually be offered printed tickets. We were, and the process went quite smoothly.
      Although both of us had seen the spritely musical version in Barbra Streisand’s 1969 takedown (almost as if wrestling with all of the other film’s characters to make sure that she remained up- and-center of all scenes), and, as a younger man, I had seen Carol Channing in the role—I believe, but am not certain—in a production in Chicago on national tour, Eve Arden performing the role (also in Chicago, I realize after having googled her career), and Pearl Bailey in Washington, D.C., I felt already pretty “dollied up”, and imagined I didn’t need to see yet another performance, unless we happened to be traveling (we no longer travel) to New York, at which time I would have loved to have seen Bette Midler or Bernadette Peters in the role.
       But Howard, not even recalling the Bailey event, claimed he’d never seen a stage production, and I felt he should have that opportunity, since, despite Streisand’s remarkable singing, the stage version was what Jerry Herman’s rambunctious musical was all about. Someone like Channing doesn’t just “milk” the audience, she enchants them, making every performance feel like it was a special event just for them. With her deep raspy voice, her amazingly blithe movements through space, and her endless appetite for food, which stands in for her appetite for audience appreciation, she literally hogs the stage, creating a kind of vacuum that even Gower Champion’s lithe male dancers at the Harmonium Gardens couldn’t match. When Channing’s Dolly strolled down the restaurant stairway and went marching across the stage apron you knew she wasn’t just singing to Rudy, Manny, Stanley, and the dozens of others for which she requested an empty knee, but was greeting every single individual in that audience, asking them to allow her to wow her as much as the Harmonium Gardens waiters and Maître-d. She made you love her whether you wanted to or not. And how could you not.
       Like Howard, I remembered little of Bailey’s performance, although given her career, it must have been magnificent. Eve Arden was a good performer who made a credible Dolly which also gave me the shivers of pleasure given my loving memories of the dozens of Our Miss Brooks TV series I had seen as a child.

Before I proceed to the rest of this review, I should also mention that I had met the composer Jerry Herman and introduced him to a celebrity audience at a party at the famed Gotham Hotel on 46th Street which I hosted for writer Jerry Lawrence, when he performed piano numbers from various of his musicals, including from not only this musical but from Dear World, with the book by Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (events which I’ve reiterated in several volumes of My Year, particularly in My Year 2005) and, a half-year later met Carol Channing briefly at another celebration for Jerry Lawrence’s book, which my press published, in Malibu, the actress with a purse perched across her head, presumably to protect her from the heavy Los Angeles sun. In a recent obituary a commentator described that she had become hair-allergic given the too many times she had died her hair blonde and red. I saw her as a gray-haired beauty, still looking like an elderly version of the Channing I had witnessed on stage.
      I have, accordingly, a rather personal relationship with this musical—although I must admit it’s never been my very favorite of Broadway entertainments.
      My very favorite of its songs, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Howard confirmed, this time seeing it, was his favorite as well, he admitting that tears trickled from his eyes in joy. From mine as well; but then I cry at most great musicals these days.
     The marvelous costumes and settings by Santo Loquasto, the great dancing of the ensemble, and the simple pleasure of seeing all these figures moving off from the confines of Yonkers to the big nearby city, says everything about this work before it even begins to fall into shape. Before we can even imagine it, Dolly Levi, the magician of “I can do anything,” with calling cards to match, has already convinced the constantly bawling Ermegarde (Morgan Kirner), feed and grain-purveyor Horace Vendergelder’s (Lewis J. Stadlen) rebellious daughter to run off to the city and enter a dance contest with her lover Ambrose Kemper (Garett Hawe), while promising Horace an encounter with two lovely women—one, Irene Molloy (Analisa Leaming), a truly beautiful hatseller, and the other a hired schill, Ernestina Money (Jessica Sheridan) in order to convince him that the only true woman for him is Dolly herself (Betty Buckley).
      From the moment they joyously get on that train, along with the younger rebelling workers in Horace’s shop, the romantically-inclined but totally inexperienced Cornelius Hackl and the far younger and utterly innocent yet remarkably athletic Barnaby Tucker (one of the best Broadway dancers I’ve seen for a long while, Jess LeProtto), we know we’re going to have a great adventure:

Beneath your parasol, the world is all the smile
That makes you feel brand new down to your toes
Get out your feathers, your patent leathers
Your beads and buckles and bows
For there's no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes.

I chose this song as one of my best Musical Theater numbers in 2018. And I still think it’s one of the better works of Broadway. Once they call “All Aboard, All Aboard,” we might as well be back in Judy Garland’s world of the trolley song of Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic trip into love in a world gone by.
      Dolly, amazing, arranges, seeming quite by accident, for Cornelius and Barnaby to visit Irene and her assistant Minne Fay (Kristen Hahn) at the very moment that she is scheduled to be called upon by Horace, chocolate unshelled peanuts in hand, when the two, espying their employer waiting on a nearby bench, dive into the woman’s hideaway.

      How she has arranged we never quite know, but New York City was apparently a smaller space in those days, when the city was centered on the lower part of Manhattan (14th Street is the center gathering point, it appears, as celebrated in the 14th Street, where the parade goes marching by), and before Horace can even imagine it, the little hatseller has become “infested” with males crawling everywhere, within her closets and under her tables, not only strange men but the very “boys” who work for Horace back in Yonkers, who Dolly incredibly portrays as men of great fame and wealth.
      Dolly has won round one, alienating Horace from his would-be lover and his workforce, while pushing the shy young men into the arms of the two willing women and forcing Horace temporarily into the arms of the heavy-weight hoohcie-koochcie dancing Miss Money, whose appearance and even her supposed money-belts distresses the now very-confused Horace.
      We already know the conclusion of this confection’s plot: Dolly will have her way. But the question is, as the Los Angeles Times reviewer Margaret Gray asks, why? Why does the vivacious Dolly even want the rather unattractive, money-pinching Horace.

Gray’s answer is simply “money,” that Dolly is desperate for financial support from the very moment she appears in Act 1. I really disagree. Yes, money is very important in this work, particularly since most of the play’s figures have none of it (or only 165 and some cents in the case the impoverished Cornelius). The marvelous Dolly only has the memory of it through her loving former husband Ephraim Levi, who apparently acquired his cash in order to, “pardon the expression,” spread it around like manure to make young things grow.
     If as Gray argues this, German-based, Thornton Wilder adaptation, might seem to be centered upon a Cabaret-like accumulation of money, it is, in fact, I might argue, just the opposite. Dolly is a true populist, determined to intervene in the capitalist system in order to spread the wealth around—while totally enjoying herself in the process or even gorging herself with the good food money allows. She is completely disinterested in money except for how it can be meddled with, taken out of the purses of the people like the half-millionaire Horace and put properly into the pockets of the poor workers such as Cornelius, Barnaby, Ambrose, and the Rudy, Manny, Stanley-like waiters. She, herself, in the years since her husband’s death, had to live, apparently, hand-to-mouth, creating a thousand personaes in order to imagine her place in the world.
      If Dolly is a bigger-than-life creature, a woman whom, finally, Horace, in his marriage proposal will describe as a “wonderful woman,” it is all about her utter ferocity, her refusal to hear anyone deny her identity. And that is why the actress her portrays her must be so very larger than life.
     Channing clearly was. I am sure Midler (who I have not seen in this production), was just such a figure. Buckley is almost there, at times channeling Channing in her low alto rolls of voice. And if there is anyone who is a true stage doyenne, it is Buckley. She rules the stage as she has in many a role. She has generally played sad figures, singing in  a high alto, beautifully wailing voice as in her role as Grizabella in Cats or in Sunset Boulevard. And those roles and others have shown us what a truly remarkable musical and theatrically-based artist she is.

     But at 71 (my age precisely, when I can no longer even imagine such a stage performance), she sings now in a lower alto voice, and doesn’t quite have the ability nor apparently the desire to strut out upon the stage the way Dolly must in order to make herself totally believable (or some might some claim, unbelievable). Don’t get me wrong: Buckley is a true star, an artist who I highly admire. Yet she just doesn’t somehow have the pizazz of the Dolly in the script, who apparently can transform everything she sees into something else.
     We love Buckley in a slight memory of her greatness, if not as much in her presence. Yes, she lifts up her dress a bit and even attempts to convince us of her dancing skills. But alas, in both voice and gams she’s simply not the Dolly we need to convince us of the magic the character achieves, bringing the entire Yonkers community into her domain and suddenly forcing even the grumpy Horace of her amazing transformative gifts, let alone allowing the gods to let her former loving husband speak through her new fiancé’s voice.
     Still, I’d go again to this lovely production, and stand up to applause for the lovely songs she belts out. And, of course, to shed tears for the beautiful songs, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Hello, Dolly!,” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” Love is like that. Over the years, I guess, I have come to love this musical too much to ever be able to totally abandon it. In my mind, “Dolly will never [entirely] go away again.”

Los Angeles, January 4, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (January 4, 2019).

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Douglas Messerli | "Rattling" (on The Wooster Group and Eric Berryman's "The B-Side")

by Douglas Messerli

The Wooster Group, with Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation / Los Angeles REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney / CalArts Theater) / I saw this with Deborah Meadows on Wednesday, January 30, 2019

On January 30th I attended the newest of what must have been now a dozen of performances that I’ve seen by the great theater company, The Wooster Group. This new work, The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons” A Record Album Interpretation echoes the group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, presented at REDCAT in 2015. Indeed, the central performer, Eric Berryman—who had discovered an album recorded by now distinguished SUNY Buffalo folklorist, Bruce Jackson—after seeing the Shaker spirituals production, had already submitted a pitch for this performance when, while working as a waiter in a New York Tea House, he coincidentally encountered Kate Valk, the director of The Wooster Group. Clearly, some larger force had determined that the two should come together (I am not a believer in religion but am convinced of intentional coincidence).
      Early in this performance, Berryman recounts this meeting, and sets the tone for a work that somewhat transcends time, darting in and out of the past, as Berryman and two other singers, Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore, help take the crackling, hard-to-hear performances of prisoners in Texas (including, and I believe their names are important to reiterate: Johnnie Adams, W. D. “Alec” Alexander, Virgil Asbury, John Bell, Douglas Cannon, James A. Champion, William Evans, John Gibson, James Hpton, James W. Hobbs, Louis “Bacon & Porkshop” Huston, Johnny Jackson, Floyd James, Lemon Jefferson, Jesse “G.I. Jazz” Hendricks, James Johnson, Joseph “Chinaman” Johnson, C. B. “Snuffy” Kimble, Henry Landers, L.Z. Lee, Clem A. Martin, Leroy Martindell, Mack Maze, D.J. Miller, Houston Page, Marshall Phillips, Johnnie H. Robinson, Arthur “Lightning” Sherrod, Albert Spencer, Lee Curtis Tyler, David Walker, Jesse Lee Warren, Venesty Welves, George White, Morgan White, Matt Williams, and Eddie Ray Zachary).

The songs they sang, on segregated black prisons in Texas, were a source of group unity, cultural survival, and spiritual transformation while they worked as day laborers cotton picking, sugarcane cutting, or flat weeding. One imagines that some of these songs and, particularly, the mock sermon that also appears on the record, were some of the few sources of joy and humor in their lives.
      Jackson’s recordings of these songs is an important document of the culture and period, but as “re-performed” over the originals by Berryman, McGruder, and Moore, become something far more important that simple folklore history.
       As Los Angeles Times theater critic, Charles McNulty quite brilliantly describes it:

Here, a context is amicably established. But something occult-like manages to occur all the same.
the three performers begin to meld their voices with those on the LP. Matching every contour of breath and sound in a stereophonic séance linking African American generations, they channel history through the recording.

     But something else happens in songs such as “Raise ‘em up Higher,” “Move Along ‘Gator,” “Don’t Be Uneasy,” “Rattler,” “Just Like a Tree Planted by the Water,” and “Forty-four Hammers,” worksongs and spirituals. We suddenly realize through the skillful contemporary performances that these men were not just lowly and unhappy spirits of the past, but in singing these songs, were remarkable performers and creators, making their nearly impossible lives over into something that we generally call art. These seemingly lost souls, in a way not so dissimilar from the presumably “saved” souls of the all-women Shaker community used that art to express their isolation and fears of being lost within the larger world in which they existed. In both cases, they realized they were living in a kind of out-of-time world not terribly dissimilar from the one presented in the popular Broadway musical, Brigadoon. Music was their only link with one another and the world at large.
     I think, having heard a couple of the songs on this remarkable recording without reinterpretation, that we might be utterly horrified by the desperation that comes from the voices who originally sang these pieces. These are men on the chain gang, who realized that in order to get any of their terrifying tasks accomplished they had to work together. As Jackson’s book, Wake Up Dead Man quotes:

       The way we do it, we do it by time. We have a steady rock. Everybody
       raise their axe up and come down at the same time, just rock. I guess
       that might a came from boats together, just work together.

     And then there are the wonderfully eccentric pieces such as “T. B. Tees Toast,” “Assassination of the President,” and the preaching parody, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” that suddenly remind you how men working on the Ramsey and Ellis farms stimulated their amazingly creative and comic imaginations.
      If this music and speech might have been seen to emanate from a distant past, we recognize in this production that it is still alive and emotionally fulfilling even today. And I am so appreciative for The Wooster Group and Eric Berryman for bringing back into the present so that we might experience the pain and joy these men suffered and experienced.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2019
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2019).